Sierra Madre isn't exactly slopping over with restaurants. One eatery there has actually named itself the Only Place in Town. But it does have quite a good Louisiana restaurant: Cajun Way Cafe.
It's run by the wife of the famous jockey Kent Desormeaux, which explains the 1990 Kentucky Derby poster on the wall, signed by four other top jockeys (Desormeaux came in third on Pleasant Tap). Otherwise, what decor this tiny place has--romantic prints of bayous and the French Quarter, a washboard and a set of spoons for rustic music-making--suggests Louisiana. It also sells some Louisiana foodstuffs, such as Tony Chachere's spice mix, Community coffee and the odd hot sauce.
And it serves genuine Cajun food, including boudin, an appetizer outsiders often have a hard time seeing the point of. It's simply rice mixed with a little meat and steamed in a sausage casing.
If that doesn't do it for you, just order anything that's fried, such as the Cajun trio: fried shrimp, crayfish and catfish. This kitchen knows its frying. The catfish, in particular, has a beautifully crisp cornmeal crust, though you do have to expect some pieces to have the ammoniacal smell that catfish develops.
Or order the hush puppies. They're the best I've had in California--in fact, they beat a lot of hush puppies I've had in the South. The balls of cornmeal are fried to a crisp, and there's a sweet hint of browned onion in the flavor. It's hard to stop eating them.
Two of the appetizers are just small portions of entrees: shrewdly, the two best entrees, gumbo, and red beans and rice. The gumbo is a fine one, more like a soup with some rice in it than a stew, and it emits the right poetically swampy aroma. There are wads of stewed chicken and mildly spicy andouille sausage slices floating around in it.
The red beans and rice takes the form of a sort of thick brown-bean puree on rice. The beans have a powerful bean flavor, and there's more of that same sausage here. This is a filling, satisfying dish.
Lighter entrees include po'-boy sandwiches of shrimp or crayfish (no oysters, unfortunately) on a French roll with a jazzy chile-mayonnaise dressing. And there's a Cajun-style hamburger, made with chopped onions and a little red pepper in the patty, also on a French roll. At lunch you'll find daily specials such as a rich corn chowder made with corn, crayfish and a ruthless amount of cream.
And then there's the etouffe. I don't understand this yellowish etouffe sauce--it's rich and bland, almost like mushroom soup. But some people must go for it because you can get it with shrimp or crayfish, or (at dinner only) fried catfish, and served on a baked potato. You can even get a baked potato topped with etouffe sauce without the shrimp or crayfish.
Cajun food has a deserved reputation for being heavy, and Cajun Way Cafe makes an effort to give a lighter alternative. The list of side dishes includes, along with hush puppies and potato salad, some decent steamed vegetables. You can get a chicken or shrimp salad, a chicken sandwich, or a meatless version of red beans and rice.
If you don't feel dietarily sensible, you can order one of several combo dinners or create your own combo. Or you can order dessert, which is never sensible at all here.
Take beignets, those French doughnuts-without-holes. They aren't as light as the ones at the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans (nobody's are), but they're a classic combination of empty calories: fresh, bready fritters, a wee bit of frying oil and heaps of powdered sugar.
There's a good pecan pie (without the sludgy texture that often mars pecan pie), and a lemon-blueberry cheesecake known as lemon berry jazz. And there's a really luscious bread pudding in Bourbon sauce. It's so moist and eggy it seems like custard with a little bread in it. Instead of apple pie, the place serves caramel apple grannie--a sort of apple shortbread cake in caramel sauce. Like the bread pudding, it's slurpy and custard-like.
And then there are the pecan pralines, made on the premises. They are exceptional: thick, with a granular, chewy and then melting texture, and a delicate molasses tang. I could live (though probably not long) on Cajun Way's hush puppies and pralines.
Cajun Way Cafe, 24A Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; (626) 836-3677. Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m., Sunday. No alcohol. Street parking. All major credit cards. Takeout. Dinner for two, $16 to $50. What to Get: hush puppies, Cajun trio, gumbo, red beans and rice, pecan pralines, bread pudding, caramel apple grannie.